In dealing with eating disorders and depression, Sarah Hays Coomer turned to fresh air and sunlight, and as a certified personal trainer and wellness coach, she urges us to the same. “I am a personal trainer for people like myself, looking to find freedom in their bodies,” she explains.
Sarah uses behavioral infrastructure for positive, proactive change — a notion she further explores in her most recent book, Physical Disobedience. She urges us not to starve, stuff or overwork our bodies, but instead, to strengthen ourselves by taking command of our individual physicality.
Through her work, Sarah is encouraging us to abandon destructive habits and feed and strengthen our bodies — and to dismantle expectations for women in the process. Welcome — and learn from — Sarah Hays Coomer, our newest FACE of the South.
What motivated you to write Physical Disobedience?
In the wake of the 2016 election, a lot of my clients were really struggling. I saw them turning the pain and frustration they were feeling on themselves. They started to slip on the progress they had been making — isolating themselves, eating late at night, skipping workouts. That behavior was a large cultural example of the issues my clients face when they experience a personal trauma or crisis.
I realized — like a brick to the head — that when we are faced with crisis, we need to have a behavioral infrastructure in place to meet the challenges with positive, proactive changes. That is what the book is about: creating a structure so that people can recognize the pain and find ways to live through it, grieve through it and meet it with behavior that celebrates and reinforces their well-being.
Tell us what “physical disobedience” means.
It’s about feeding and strengthening our bodies as a direct act of defiance — disobeying expectations for how we’re supposed to look or behave as women and how we utilize our bodies to interface with the world. It’s about changing how we perceive beauty and power in ourselves and in those around us — and playing with different types of exercise, alternative therapies, nutrition and fashion to uproot those traditional ways of thinking.
Liberty is the point of the whole thing. Imagine what we could accomplish if we could show up in our bodies unapologetically every day.
Who is the modern feminist? What matters to her?
Well, my mind first went to Gloria Steinem, who is still a guiding light for me.
I think the modern feminist is someone who may have awakened recently to just how unequal things still are for women in the workplace, at home and in society and who is looking for ways to bring changes into her own life and environment. Recognizing that inequality also seems to have galvanized deeper awareness and a movement to advocate for everyone who is marginalized, regardless of race, class, immigration status or sexual orientation.
When did you begin making the connection between feminism and fitness?
I have never been a typical personal trainer. I have always approached fitness from the perspective of wanting to be free of the desire to shrink and manipulate my body. I didn’t become a trainer to be a hard body, or to make anyone else that way, but rather, to break away and ultimately be done with this conversation.
I work with a lot of women who have difficulty with their bodies — chronic pain, depression, obesity, eating disorders, cancer or disease. I see how strong they are, how far they are able to come, and, over time, the freedom that breeds. From there, it’s a no-brainer to recognize that when we liberate our bodies, we also liberate our lives. Fitness, for me, has always been about living more fully and being more alive and grounded.
What’s the single most important thing a woman can do to take care of her whole self?
The most important thing they can do is to listen. It’s a practice, to start hearing tiny squeaks coming from their bodies — this shoulder doesn’t feel right, or this stomach pain doesn’t seem to be getting better. Clue in and use them as your guide for where to go next. It is a crucial skill to have because it applies to everything in our bodies and lives. For every woman, the answers are different. We need to be able to hear and respond.
You’ve been visiting spots across the country for your book tour. What is one of the most interesting places you have visited (we are hoping it is the Google campus!)?
The Google campus was amazing! But the event later that night in San Francisco was even cooler. It was in a motorcycle loft in The Mission with women from Google, Facebook, Pandora, etc. … It felt like a brain trust of the women who are shaping our digital lives. It was fascinating to talk with them about artificial intelligence, bots and the algorithms that are shaping the ways we see beauty.
L.A. was pretty awesome, too, with a lot of women working in entertainment and social justice. We ended up sitting out by a pool overlooking the city and talking until 2 in the morning!
Who is inspiring you right now?
Michelle Obama, America Ferrera and all of the musicians encouraging people to vote
What’s your morning routine?
I have a 6-year-old, so my routine is getting jumped on. Then, I have black tea with almond milk. I have clients early in the morning, so I am usually with them, getting their days started. It’s 10 a.m. before I do my own thing, which involves a walk/hike and writing, before getting back to clients later in the day.
In our current political climate, there seems to be more divisiveness than unity. How do you engage in politics in a positive, healthy way?
If we focus too much on the negative, it starts to impact our bodies negatively. It is important to curate our social media feeds so we are seeing things that enlighten and inspire us. If something is bringing you down and making you feel inadequate or angry, I encourage people to cut that out.
Once you see the sources that are inspiring, you can mirror and reflect that into the world.
I had a question at a book event. A woman from the deep South wanted to engage and understand the thinking of someone in her life, but she said that watching her on social media broke her heart every day. I said, “You can do both.” It is a wonderful impulse to want to talk face-to-face, but you can also silence people on social media to protect your well-being. It’s your space.
As far as dealing with our bodies, it is about having this infrastructure in place. You have the people, places, exercise, movement and food that a) you enjoy, b) bring you balance and c) give you energy. If you have those in place and know what they are without thinking twice, when you’re in the weeds and can’t see straight, you know what to dive into.
What organizations are you particularly excited about right now?
Moms Demand Action, which works on gun safety and advocating for common-sense gun laws.
HeadCount because voter registration and turnout are absolutely crucial.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you?
Hiking, porch-sitting with my friends and playing with my son and my husband.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received, and from whom?
My mom always used to say, “Slow and steady wins the race,” which is an Aesop’s Fable. I find that to be true in writing, in fitness, in politics and in relationships. It applies across the board.
Name three things you cannot live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
Sunlight, water and pets
Thank you, Sarah, for inspiring us to be our best selves. Thanks to Molly Peach Photography for today’s photos!
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